Charles from the Oak Tree

“I’m happy for you, Leah. And I just want to be sure everything is okay with you,” Karel once said to me in a big rehearsal room adorned with ornamental rugs and funky stringed instruments. We were co-writing a song comparing the human condition with the ant condition (yes, the insect). I was talking about a boy I had started seeing. I knew Karel was being genuine about his consideration for me because nothing Karel ever said was ill-genuine or posing. This was one of many striking things about Karel’s personality.

Karel Van Der Eijk (translated to Carl or Charles from the Oak) is a bassist from a town on the Southwest coast of the Netherlands that is literally called Monster. I found this funny considering how unthreatening Karel’s demeanor is. However, he will command a room’s attention when he wants to be heard, unapologetically requesting that people listen to his thoughts or feelings.

At my first band rehearsal with Karel in Mannheim, Germany where we were both participating in a semester abroad, he immediately started making suggestions and thinking out loud. He said exactly what he was thinking, challenging everyone in the room with his honesty. He used his theoretical knowledge to explain his vision and would interrogate us for feedback. From the start, he was already changing the game by being himself and not “just showing up.” And here I was thinking “Why is this guy ripping against the grain?”

I don’t remember the exact point in which I decided “I really like this guy” but something changed within the next few weeks when I asked him to help me compose vocal harmonies for a ballad I had written. Of course he agreed and the longer we spent in the practice room together, the more he started to grow on me.

Karel is a little shorter than I am, standing at about 5’7”. He has long skinny legs and a short torso. With sandy hair, light eyes, and fair skin, he looks like a bearded/mustached Billy Boyd; the actor who played Pippin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A slight Dutch accent colors his baritone speaking voice. Karel is quiet in large crowds and talkative in one-on-one conversations. “Let me know if I’m just, like, talking your ear off,” he’ll say in the middle of a conversation, pausing between his words to find the right English phrase. Although Karel assumes a certain poise in his step, he apparently enjoys tripping on the stairs and running his rusty (I might rather say rustic) bicycle into things. He will laugh at that sentence.

Recalling our first co-writing session for our single "DifferANT" (coming soon), Karel talked about his experience transitioning from being the best bass player in his community, to being the best average bass player when he came in contact with the “real world”. What I absolutely admire about Karel is his ability to A) just come out and say that and B) his complete acceptance of life’s circumstances in the sense that yes, you might be the best at some point but there’s always going to be someone better; and that’s really, truly okay. Karel has helped me realize my own pride complex, developed as a result of trying to distinguish myself as a solo artist in the giant, happening city of Chicago. When I fail at something, it can be completely heartbreaking because it feels like a blow to my ego. I’m used to being the leader, the front woman, the ideator, and the performer. Karel revealed to me the humility that comes from playing the background, being the supporter, and playing on other people’s tunes. But what differentiates Karel from other “background” players is his desire to have a voice in the creation and presentation of music. He won’t just let the song happen if he senses something can be done to make it better.

I can almost guarantee that a good chunk of Karel’s recommended Youtube videos are music theory lessons and tutorials. Karel loves music for the sake of music itself; not for the channel it might provide for fame and attention. Karel is a theory guy with a teacher quality. I will send him shitty iPhone photos of handwritten original scores and he will text back corrections. He once offered to teach me a bass lesson despite the fact I don't even own a bass. I still have the notes he wrote down for me which will undoubtedly be useful for me in the future if I ever pursue bass.

Karel and I have conversed about a wide range of topics; music theory, the music industry, his love-life, my love-life, relationships in general, his personality, my personality, the human condition, emotions, comedy, our futures, etc. One time during a writing session, I laughed myself into tears at someone’s Yahoo Answers response to the question “How many ants are there?” Their response was “three”. The absurdity of this response had me in a fit of maniac laughter, encouraged further by the disbelieving way Karel was looking at me. He was laughing too and I felt so grateful I could be 100% myself around him. Moments like this happened frequently in which I realized Karel was a true friend and someone who would inspire me rather than suck out my energy. To put it simply, this is a quality of a solid friend.

Whenever I performed during my time in Germany, I always looked for him after the show to ask for feedback. He would reveal honest flaws about the performance, then round out his analysis by telling me what I was really good at. “You’re a really good guitarist and should consider just playing guitar for other bands” is something I hadn't really heard before until Karel mentioned it. And although I know Karel appreciates me as a front woman, I felt encouraged and inspired by this suggestion because it showed me my abilities aren’t limited and Karel has consistently revealed that to me in various ways.

Once, after a long recording session, he biked me home. It was about 2 in the morning and the streets of Mannheim were dark, cold, and empty. The pavements were glistening and lights hung in the sky. I sat on the back, like a lady on a horse. I was being a weirdo and Karel was laughing at me being a weirdo and every now and then some real statement was thrown into the quiet air and examined further by our conversation interrupted by bumps in the road and stop lights. I had a moment where I realized how special this image of friendship was and how I wanted to store it in my memory. So I did. When we parted ways, I locked it up in the corner of my mind labeled “To be opened when things are heavy”.

And now Karel and I are soon proud to present our collaborative work “DifferANT”; a commentary on the human condition as it compares to the life of ants. It’s a satire with a deeper message of “it’s okay to not be special”, a Karel-inspired message. However, it’s sort of ironic considering how special Karel is.

Thanks for being my friend and teaching me some valuable life lessons, Carol. Keep ripping against the grain. *fist bump*

  • LJ



Karel and Leah. Photograph by Lih Tsan. 

Karel and Leah. Photograph by Lih Tsan.